Neuroplasticity: How to Reprogram Your Brain

Brains are not static, but always evolving – learn how to program yours for happiness

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By Poppy Jamie

21 March 2021

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ometimes, everything can feel too much. When we have our hearts set on achieving something and it doesn’t work out as planned, it hurts and – more importantly – affects what we perceive as happiness.

But happiness isn’t the absence of problems; it’s learning how to deal with them. So often, we’re quick to judge ourselves for feeling anything negative. But you’re not broken for feeling the way you do; the human brain simply isn’t equipped to manage everything thrown its way.

This week, I sat down with clinical psychologist Dr Soph, who explained this phenomenon: “Most people think when they’re distressed, struggling, or failing, that their mind is in some way broken. This understandably leads to shame and fear, which always exacerbate any symptom.

“Meditation makes your brain stronger, putting you in the driver’s seat, allowing you to be more in the moment and better at making complex decisions”

“But if I could talk to every person on Earth, I would tell them this: you make sense. All the experiences and struggles you have every day are down to your unique experience of the world. And the world hasn’t necessarily taught you how to cope with those things.”

Enter neuroplasticity. This is the scientific study of the ways in which our brains can physically rearrange themselves, rewiring pathways between neurons in response to our experiences – and how we can take control of that process for our own benefit.

Through MRI scans, scientists have discovered that emotional pain and physical pain have more in common than we might think. Research has shown that when we experience heartbreak, for example, the part of our brain that is triggered is the same one that is triggered when we feel physical pain. In other words, when we’re burned by someone we love, our brain is responding as if we’re physically being burned by a hot flame.

It is important to recognise that you are struggling for a very valid reason. Your brain has been trained to think a certain way, and it sometimes feels like it’s impossible to change yourself at this deep level. But science tells us that it isn’t.

Image by Poppy Jamie

Neuroplasticity tells us that our brains can change. The more we use different parts of our brain and repeat certain behaviours, the more we strengthen the corresponding neural pathways. There was a time when neuroplasticity was only believed to occur in children, but we now know that we can change the ways in which our brain functions well into adulthood. This is an idea first suggested by American philosopher and psychologist William James in 1890, but it’s only in the latter half of the 20th century that we started to truly comprehend what it meant.

So the more you do anything – whether that be demonstrating self-acceptance and compassion, practicing mindfulness, or meditation – the more you are gradually changing the structure of your brain to better accommodate it. Over time, whatever you need to do to help overcome hardship will become a well-practised habit and part of your natural way of being.

Mindfulness is key to this. It may seem like a relatively new concept, but it has been used as a form of therapy for stress and anxiety since the 1970s, and has its roots in Buddhism. And it works. Studies have shown that after six to 20 weeks of daily practice, your prefrontal cortex has increased cortical thickness. Think of meditation as brain training. It makes your brain stronger, putting you in the driver’s seat, allowing you to be more in the moment and better at making complex decisions. The same studies also found that after practising mindfulness meditation, there were fewer cells in the amygdala, the home of our sense of fear.

Image by National Cancer Institute

Mindfulness means something different to everyone. Some people know when they’re prone to panic – maybe it’s just before a big board meeting or at a certain time of the day – and can respond to those moments by connecting with others who understand them. Others just take a walk outside and surround themselves with nature. Journalling is another tactic Dr Soph recommends; it’s a way of getting your emotions out there when you’re not ready to talk to another person about them.

Life is not going to stop throwing hardship and difficulties your way. But rather than being hard on yourself, criticising yourself or punishing yourself for being distinctly human, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you can only do the best with the tools you have. It’s a matter of seeking out the people, routines, or experiences you know will bring comfort and reassurance when required. In doing this, you can gradually retrain your brain to better respond to all the complicated situations that come along.

Lead image courtesy of: Tom Viggars

The Short Stack

Your feelings are valid, but don’t let them run your life – using mindfulness, you can reprogram your brain to control how you respond to stress.

By Poppy Jamie

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